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Professor Stephen Fleming: Children shouldn't be excluded from funerals

Professor Stephen Fleming: Children shouldn't be excluded from funerals

What should families consider when involving young children in a parent’s funeral? asked the Toronto Star’s Jan. 20, in a story about the funeral of Toronto Police officer Ryan Russell, which his two-year-old son Nolan attended:

Opinions on the subject have shifted from the days when children weren’t expected to attend funerals at all. “A large part of it was trying to protect them,” says Stephen Fleming, professor of psychology in York University’s Faculty of Health and a consultant to Bereaved Families of Ontario – Toronto, “and I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to proceed.”

A two-year-old like Nolan will understand very little at a funeral, but attending one may help in the grief process down the road. “The chance of the child being traumatized in the worst case scenario, or being able to recall a whole lot, is very slim,” says Fleming.

To make the day easier, children should be allowed to interact with the proceedings in an age-appropriate way, Fleming says. They may want to write a letter, or place something inside the coffin.

Kids should also be free to be kids. At an open-casket visitation, children should be allowed to touch the body if they are curious, and free to play during the funeral, Fleming says. “They don’t know what mourning behaviour is” – and that’s okay.

Once children are eight or nine years old, their understanding of death deepens. Younger children don’t comprehend that death can’t be reversed, or that it happens to everyone. “As children age, they grapple with and eventually get these types of concepts,” he says.

Above all, says Fleming, keep open lines of communication. When kids are left in the dark about important but scary events like the death of a loved one, they tend to “fill the gaps in their understanding, usually with things that are much more threatening.”

Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin